Monday, February 28, 2022

Except for Those Inconvenient Discoveries


Are government documents always correct? I've read, from time to time, rants by genealogists who seem to think our official record keepers are not above reproach. Death certificates often are the prime exhibit—which certainly makes sense, considering the reported names for parents of the deceased are blurted out by their grief-stricken survivors at some most inconvenient times, all in the name of the minutiae of bureaucracy.

There are, however, less excusable record gaffs. I'm convinced census enumerators should fall within this category of, um, less-sainted scribes. An inconvenient discovery in the midst of my quest to discover Catherine Laws' parents' names will be today's prime exhibit.

Over the weekend, I continued combing through my twenty five DNA matches whose trees contain the surname Laws, and my five DNA matches linked through Ancestry's Thru-Lines readout. I had already hypothesized that Catherine Laws, my second great-grandmother, could claim as her parents a couple from North Carolina who had settled in Greene County, Tennessee, after Catherine's marriage to Thomas Davis in nearby Washington County. That most likely couple, William and Elizabeth Laws, had headed a household in Yancey County, North Carolina, in 1850 which included a daughter named Catherine, of an age close to that of my Catherine.

Examining my DNA matches, I had found two small candidates whose trees showed them descended from Catherine's (as yet theoretical) brother, Pine Dexter Laws. One of those was a match sharing a precariously tiny twelve centiMorgans with me, whose paper trail I confirmed led to a relationship of fourth cousin once removed. The other supposed descendant of Pine Dexter Laws shared an even smaller genetic match with me, topped off with an assumption showing in the paper trail which was not adequately supported by documentation. For Pine Dexter and his DNA descendants, let's say we're at the fifty-fifty mark.

Another DNA match, this time descending from Catherine's possible brother Larkin Laws, turned out to be from a line of descent from which I had encountered problems with the first match I had studied: a daughter whose records indicated a given name different from that asserted by the DNA match. Though the match shared a slightly stronger total—twenty three centiMorgans—I am not comfortable using that to bolster my contention about possible parents' identity yet.

Matches linked to a third Laws descendant, Elizabeth, presented an uncomfortable consideration for me as well. Besides the small centiMorgan level, those matches' trees included a different given name for their "Elizabeth"—especially in marriage records—while I find no marriage record at all.

And yet, there was that other Laws descendant whose DNA results I stumbled upon, no thanks to the tools at Ancestry. Sharing thirty seven centiMorgans, this was another descendant from Pine Dexter Laws—an unmistakable name and identity—leading me back to that specific line of William and Elizabeth Laws. How could I doubt such a clear marker?

To complicate matters—and doesn't a solid proof argument require us to not ignore those "inconvenient" discoveries?—in a surprise moment of realizing that even Catherine herself, after her marriage, had lived briefly in Greene County near her family, I realized another possible genealogical train wreck headed down my research track.

Sure enough, Catherine Laws and her husband Thomas Davis were recorded in the 1870 census in the neighborhood—and on the same census page—as the household of her supposed father, William Laws, and one page ahead of the mangled entry for her brother, Larkin Laws.

There was only one problem for that entry regarding William Laws.

While his age was close to what I had seen previously—a birth about 1804 instead of 1802—and his shoemaker occupation was certainly spot on, this North Carolina man's unmarried daughter Elizabeth was suddenly twenty eight, when she should have been ten years older. But that wasn't the problem that concerned me.

Then, too, the twelve year old William in the household could well have been the elder William's grandson—and son of Larkin from the first marriage I had mused about last week. So I wasn't too concerned about that discrepancy, either.

The main problem about this Laws household in the 1870 census was that it contained an entry for a woman named Catherine Laws. As in, the same name as my second great-grandmother, the one I was presuming was represented by the entry three households later in that same 1870 census page. If Catherine Davis was William Laws' daughter, who was this other Catherine in his household?

This, of course, made me backtrack to my original problem-solving exploration of 1850 census possibilities. Could it be that William Laws was not the correct identity for Catherine's father? Should I have examined the alternate possibility, that of the Stokes County, North Carolina, household of John and Jane Laws?

Going back to that alternate possibility, I rolled that scenario ahead a few years to check for confirmation. As it turns out, John and Jane did have a daughter Catherine as well, but you will undoubtedly understand my relief to discover that their Catherine was married in her home county—ironically, in the same year as my Catherine, 1856—to a man named Elijah Frye.

Thus, at this point at the end of my research month, I can safely discard that Catherine's parents, John and Jane Laws, as the correct answer to my research question. And while I'm not yet thoroughly convinced of the solidness of the alternate option, I can concede that some of the DNA matches pointing to William and Elizabeth Laws have validity.

Above all, I can hold tight to my conviction that not all government documents are created equal. And remember to find more—many more—paths to documentation confirmation. 

Sunday, February 27, 2022

Off the Shelf:
Zotero for Genealogy


There are a number of books languishing on my library shelves, bought with good intentions and the promise to read when I get around to it. Donna Cox Baker's Zotero For Genealogy is one such book which needs to get pulled down from its resting place, opened up and put to good use. Given what a great research tool Zotero can be, and given how much we need to keep track of resources in tracing our family history, I figured the book was a perfect fit for someone like me.

Zotero is a free open-source software program useful for organizing reference material—books, journals, even .pdf files, or any records accumulated when we research our roots. The software was originally developed by a nonprofit organization now known as the Corporation for Digital Scholarship, whose own roots reach back to George Mason University. Its nearly seamless operation helps researchers harvest bibliographic information from far-ranging subjects, thus making it a familiar tool for many who have recently completed graduate study programs.

One of those "many" is author Donna Cox Baker, Ph.D., perhaps best known in genealogy circles for her online project, Beyond Kin and her GenoHistory website. As a historian, her approach is to carefully weave genealogy into the broader perspective of history, which requires an organized system for keeping track of the many reference citations important in such projects. 

Since I already am deeply immersed in genealogy, and am well aware of the power of Zotero, Donna's 2019 paperback edition seemed a logical purchase for me. While the book's promise of eliminating paper and physical filing and reducing the duplication of keystrokes with those tedious citations necessary for journal publication may be tempting, my main reason for getting her book was to see her method for blending the basics of the software with the specifics of genealogy research.

"Harnessing the Power of Your Research" is not just the book's subtitle; it certainly speaks to someone drowning in reference material like I am. I'm looking forward to putting the program—and the book—through its paces, especially for some of the research goals I've set out for myself this year.



Saturday, February 26, 2022

Choosing Connection


It's the weekend before RootsTech, and all through the night, I've been trying to catch up with one particular connection tool available to conference participants: Relatives at RootsTech. Sure, there's a lot to be done to prepare for the beginning of the event when RootsTech opens this coming March 3 - 5. I certainly want to set up my RootsTech play list, for instance; even though there are nine hundred new sessions available, it seems like the fifteen hundred sessions from last year will still be available through the FamilySearch Learning Library. That alone will take some planning to navigate.

The theme for this year's free online conference is Choose Connection, and what better way to convert that sentiment into action than to participate in Relatives at RootsTech. That means, of course, signing up for a free account, if you don't have one (done). That also means registering for the conference (check) and clicking the statement indicating I specifically wish to participate in Relatives at RootsTech.

Those are all simple steps, of course. Far easier to accomplish than the next hurdle: making sure my ancestors' presence is included in the FamilySearch tree. For those who have been active participants in the universal tree build at FamilySearch, that task is as done as it ever will be, but for someone like me, who prefers the curmudgeonly plodding way of building my own tree in the solitude of my own subscription at, it's not like I can simply upload my twenty-something thousand relatives onto FamilySearch via a GEDcom. Oh, no, think again: it means going step by step, adding my favorite—or at least most desperately sought—ancestors onto their tree, one by one.


I did, however, persevere. I now have a token presence on the tree. Mainly, the lines I input represent my paternal grandparents' no-longer-mysterious Polish roots, and a few of my mother's lines. And you know what? In doing that process, I was amazed to discover that several of those individuals turned out to not have any matches already resident in the database—which means I contributed new information that, hopefully, others will be able to find and, perhaps, build onto from that stub of my building project.

Face it: every new bit of information we provide can, in turn, help someone else with their brick wall ancestor. Since RootsTech is such an international event, of course I have a selfish motive: that someone from Poland might discover some of the ancestral entries I included and be able to build out the line to current descendants halfway across the world from me. If those connected relatives happen to be able to speak English, connecting through chat at RootsTech might mean I can reach out to a long-lost distant cousin whose ancestors might have always wondered what became of my great-grandparents after they left their homeland. An exciting thought.

Apparently, I've already amassed over nineteen thousand "relatives" who have signed up for Relatives at RootsTech this year. Not a one of them is from Poland—so far—but I can keep hoping. Most are from the United States. While there are plenty of Broyles, Taliaferro, and Tilson connections I've spotted, a match is only as good as the data it is drawn from, and some of those ancestors "in common" are names I've never encountered before. I'll wait until I see the proof on paper before I become ecstatic about some of those sixth cousins (or beyond), but I've spotted a few third cousins of interest—yet another way to look at a theme like "Choose Connection" for a fun application like this.


Friday, February 25, 2022

Retracing Those "Fast and Furious" Steps


Toward the end of her life, my mother posted notes to herself, most likely as a reminder to keep working hard at a particular task. One note, however, did not refer to grocery shopping lists or calendared meetings, but was an enigmatic descriptor. The note said simply, "Fast and furious." At times, she had that note pinned to surfaces throughout the house, as if to remind herself, when working on a project, to focus for speed in accomplishing a specific task.

Now that I'm racing the month's close to find the parents of my second great-grandmother, Catherine Laws, I must have subconsciously taken my cue from my mother's scribbled reminders. I've been working fast and furious. Too fast, as it turns out: I misplaced the identity of the DNA match who leads back to a second potential brother of my Catherine.

Simple, you might be thinking: just pull up your DNA matches on Ancestry and search for all matches with a surname Laws in their tree...except that not all family trees of our DNA matches reach back that many generations. Let alone consider the difficulty of researchers who have not yet discovered the maiden name of their female ancestors.

I tried retracing my steps, recreating yesterday's research path in every way I could recall. Matches of matches? Nope. Search using a more recent surname in the match's family tree? Nice try, but no. I ended up going back to Catherine's proposed collateral line, dropping down from that other brother—Pine Dexter Laws—to the daughter I remember being named in the match's tree (Peggy). From there, I looked in my hints for every single Ancestry member's tree which contained that specific Laws descendant's name, and clicked through all the respective trees to each subscriber's name to see whether Ancestry mentioned that person as a DNA match.

Eventually, I retraced my way to the right DNA match—but let me tell you, I hope to never have to repeat that lesson again!

The match in question shares thirty seven centiMorgans in common with me. Taking a quick look at DNA Painter, home of the interactive version of Blaine Bettinger's Shared cM Project, I noticed that, of all the possible relationships for those sharing thirty seven centiMorgans, fourteen percent have reported being fourth cousins with their match. I fall into that less common category, for this Laws descendant DNA match and I are indeed fourth cousins.

On the heels of that research triumph, though, should follow this question: is there any other way my match and I could be related? After all, we share those thirty seven cMs in two segments. And Greene County, Tennessee, being the small, interrelated region that it is, there is that possibility of more than one connection. I don't see any possibilities yet, but keep in mind my match's tree is quite limited, though my tree doesn't reveal any other mutual family surnames.

I have yet to locate a match descending from any other of the siblings in my target Laws family—the children of William and Elizabeth Laws of Yancey County, North Carolina—but now that I've traced them through several decades and noted their move across the state line to Greene County, I did see one other encouraging sign: according to his death record, my own great-grandfather Will Davis, son of Catherine Laws, was born in Greene County. Not only that, but his entire family moved from their home in Washington County to Greene County for a while, showing up there in the 1870 census—a fact I had previously overlooked until prodded to pursue Catherine's own roots.

Over the weekend, you can be sure I will be thumbing my way through records for the rest of this proposed Laws family connection. My interim goal is still to locate any other DNA matches who descend from a William Laws family member other than Larkin or Pine Dexter. While the DNA matches I've already found from these two likely brothers of my Catherine seem to confirm I've selected the right potential parents for my second great-grandmother, it would certainly bolster a proof argument to strengthen it with even more lines to connect them.

In the meantime, while working "fast and furious" on the heels of a potential family history breakthrough, I've been reminded to always, always, always remember to keep track of that research trail. Better to spend time moving forward than retracing those tedious steps once again. 

Thursday, February 24, 2022

Leaning Toward the
Side of Greater Caution


Knowing half of a story never instills quite as much research confidence as knowing both sides of a story. That observation certainly applies, when it comes to using DNA tests for genealogical purposes. Discovering the name of one partner in a couple may be encouraging, but until we can confirm the other party involved, we are still left with conjectures.

That's pretty much where I stand with this exploration into the possibilities for my second great-grandmother's parents' identity. I have DNA matches whose trees point me back to a man by the name of Larkin Laws. Initial joy over the discovery that there was a household in 1850 North Carolina which included both Larkin and a possible candidate for my second great-grandmother, Catherine Laws, gave way to doubts, once I followed the line of Larkin's descendants. Comparing what I found with the trees of two of Larkin Laws' descendants inspired more questions than answers. Hence, the caution.

First on my list of questions was the point I brought up yesterday: did Larkin's three older children have a different mother than that of his younger children? This is important, because the specific descendant for two of my DNA matches was Larkin's second daughter, Elizabeth.

Well, let's put it this way: that daughter is identified as Elizabeth from her appearance as a two year old in the 1860 census, all the way to the day of her 1881 marriage to J. W. Bullman in Greene County, Tennessee. Records after her wedding named J. W. Bullman's wife as Frances.

It isn't so much that I'm concerned that Frances Bullman isn't the same woman as Elizabeth Bullman—although having some document to clarify the name switch would be reassuring. The root of the problem reaches farther back than that: to Elizabeth's own mother, whoever she was. Remember, Elizabeth's 1858 date of birth pre-dates her father's marriage to Matilda Oler. Not being able to specify the identity of Elizabeth's own mother leaves us open to the possibility that her descendants' DNA match to me might be owing to yet another family line in this region of tightly-knit (read: intermarried) communities.

Because of that, I've taken a closer look at the many other small DNA matches I have in common with Laws ancestors—specifically, to avoid descendants of Larkin. At closer inspection, several of my Laws connections have matches in common with my Davis ancestors, making it even more important that I only use descendants for whom I'm confident of both sides of their pedigree.

As it turns out, I have at least two small matches who descend from a different son of William and Elizabeth Laws. Like Larkin, this son had a given name making him ripe for lifelong mis-identification in government records. The man's name in the 1850 census, best I could tell, looked like Pendexter. It was no surprise to see the name rendered as the more familiar Poindexter in the 1860 census. By the time of the 1870 census, he may have just given up and settled for "Dexter" as a given name, but even though he was a single man boarding in another couple's home, his occupation as shoemaker in Greene County, Tennessee—same county where other Laws family members had settled—gave me enough confidence to assume that was the right identity.

Not long after that 1870 census, Greene County records alert us that "Pendexter" Laws had married Mary Ricker, beginning a family which grew to six surviving children by the 1900 census, still in Greene County. Among those six was their son David King Laws, whose own son Lawrence showed up in the tree for one of my matches. Even though that match's tree wasn't very large, all it took was seeing that one name, since I had already built out my hypothetical Laws tree for many of the lines of descent.

Just to be sure—especially since I am still in doubt over his brother Larkin's children—I'll be working over these Lawrence Laws DNA matches to examine whether that is indeed the right connecting link. And then—glutton for research punishment that I am—it would be nice to find a DNA match connected to another child of potential parents William and Elizabeth Laws, before I conclude that that was the identity of my Catherine's parents. An added bonus would be to wrap up this February research project before I run out of month. more thing: about Catherine Laws' other brother. His name turned out not to be Poindexter. Nor was it Pendexter. According to his children's own death records, he used the name Dexter, but that was apparently his middle name. His first name was Pine, producing his full name as Pine Dexter Laws. No wonder he confused all those government record keepers. 

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Getting Lucky With Larkin


It is only with some lucky discoveries, thanks to DNA testing, that we can budge those previously immovable brick wall ancestors from their moorings. In my case, my second great-grandmother, Catherine Laws, may have had a sibling with an unusual name: Larkin. At least, that's what one of my closest Laws family DNA matches is showing me. Now to test out that possibility and see if it leads anywhere.

Let's see what we can find about Larkin Laws, the twenty three year old laborer in the household of William and Elizabeth Laws. At the time of the 1850 census, Larkin and Catherine and the rest of the Laws household were situated in Yancey County, North Carolina, and yet, before the next census, my Catherine had married a man in Washington County, Tennessee, by the name of Thomas Davis. How did that North Carolina girl end up in Tennessee? Tracing Larkin, as well as William and Elizabeth Laws, through subsequent enumerations helps quell my concerns about just how my second great-grandmother Catherine, from North Carolina, ended up marrying someone in Tennessee.

Following the Laws household to the 1860 census shows the shoemaker had moved to Carter County, Tennessee. While the location was in a different state from the Laws household's 1850 origin in North Carolina, checking a map shows the distance was not very far. Both counties border the state line, with Yancey County being slightly south of Carter County.

Fortunately, the elder Laws' occupation helps differentiate William Laws, and we can see, in 1860, that Larkin has followed his (likely) father's craft. The challenge in reviewing this 1860 census, though, is that ages don't advance by ten years from the previous census. Is that simply an indicator that ages weren't tracked as carefully in that region, or a sign that we've located the wrong family?

Names, compared with the previous census, seem to follow the pattern. Of course, by 1860, our Catherine would have removed to her own household with her husband Thomas Davis in nearby Washington County, Tennessee. Of the rest of the Laws grouping listed in 1850, all but Rebecca and John were accounted for in 1860—though some managed to age only five years in the interim, while others gained eight years. Only Wiley managed to complete a full ten years in the span between the two census records, a cause for some doubt about this research find.

When we move onward another ten years, we see several changes for Larkin's living situation. With that, I'm tempted to read between the lines, back at that 1860 census. Remember, the 1860 census did not include any explanation regarding relationship between members of a household; we need to infer what the connections might have been. As an example, for the presumed matriarch of the Laws household in the 1860 census, forty nine year old Elizabeth Laws, the youngest child was listed as a seven month old baby. While it is possible for that to have been Elizabeth's child, when we move to the 1870 census, I see a different scenario: the three youngest children from the 1860 census may actually have been the children of Elizabeth's eldest son, rather than her own.

The age gap from the next child up in that 1860 census—seventeen year old Wyley—to five year old Margaret also makes me wonder if Larkin might have been the father of children Margaret, two year old Elizabeth, and baby William. If so, those three youngest children might have lost their mother before 1860.

By 1862, Larkin Laws has taken a wife, a woman by the name of Matilda E. Oler of Greene County, Tennessee. The 1870 censusif we can believe that the listing for "Landon" Laws in Greene County actually refers to our Larkin—shows an interesting configuration. Though the couple married only eight years previously, their household now includes two teenagers by the names of Margaret and Elizabeth, who, like their father, had been born in North Carolina. The family is rounded out with two younger sons, Wylie and James, most likely children of both Larkin and Matilda.

Larkin Laws remains in Greene County for the two remaining enumerations in which I can find him listed: in 1880 and 1900. Beyond that, I can find no sign of either Larkin or his Tennessee-born wife Matilda. Still, there is enough information in those several census records to allow me to build a tree of their descendants. After all, that is the next step to take in comparing a possible link with my closest Laws DNA match.

It's a good thing I've already started that process, though, for it didn't take long for me to realize there might be a discrepancy between the tree I built and the one posted by my Laws cousin. We might not be as lucky with this discovery of Larkin as I had thought. The crux of the matter may go back to that same issue with Larkin's older children—the ones who might have had a different mother. If I don't know who that other mother was, how can I determine whether our DNA match is owing to a Laws connection, or through another line? 

Tuesday, February 22, 2022

When a Name Stands Out —
Like, Really Stands Out


Looking through the names selected by our ancestors for their children can point to one frustrating fact: some families like to re-use given names, generation after generation. That, of course, makes it difficult for those of us who, in retrospect, like to organize those names into a pedigree chart. The multiple Johns and Marys in a family line, repeated over the generations, make for a challenging sorting process. It comes with a sigh of relief when we stumble upon an outlier in that name-tracing process.

Such is the case for me, as I try to intuit which Laws couple in either Tennessee or North Carolina my second great-grandmother Catherine might have called mom and dad. Fortunately, there is a key to help me in this sorting process. My Catherine Laws might have had a sibling stuck with a name which really stood out.

Those of us "gifted" with such a burden in our own lifetime may groan with sympathy, for we recognize the angst that sometimes comes to children when they really stand out in the crowd. But this is a second great-grandmother's brother, and whatever grief his name might have brought to the hapless chap in his pre-teen awkwardness is now—at least from our vantage point—received with gratefulness by those of his descendants tasked with finding our way back to his generation.

The way I know this unusual name connects to my family is through some DNA matches whose direct ancestor claimed that specific given name. The name was Larkin Laws and, though his name does seem different, there was more than one man by that name in the vicinity where Catherine Laws lived, back in the mid-1800s. 

Remembering we need to keep our eyes open for Catherine's Laws kin in both North Carolina and Tennessee, I've spotted a Larkin Laws in each of those states, according to the 1850 census. One entry, in Tennessee, included Larkin as a sixteen year old in the household of Elisha and Ellender Laws. The other option was a twenty three year old by the same name in the North Carolina household of William and Elizabeth Laws.

That second option piques my interest because the household also included a twelve year old by the name of Catherine Laws—exactly the age that fits subsequent details for my Catherine, wife of Thomas Davis. I also noticed that William Laws, head of the North Carolina household, claimed for his occupation the trade of shoemaker, something which differentiates him from the many others of that era who simply labeled themselves as farmer. We'll find that detail useful as we track that Laws family forward in time with subsequent enumerations.

Because Larkin is not only a name which really stands out, but one which happens to be claimed as a direct line ancestor by my closest Laws DNA match, I chose to begin following what became of that Larkin Laws' descendants. I didn't simply trace my match's tree—it is so easy for trees to inadvertently include mistakes—but began by independently constructing a tree of my own, based on what I could find from actual public records.

I chose to begin with the Larkin who was in the 1850 household of William and Elizabeth, specifically because that household included a younger girl by the name of Catherine—very likely my Catherine. We need to keep in mind, though, that inclusion in a household in the 1850 census did not guarantee that each younger person was specifically a child of the two oldest members of that household. Larkin could have been William's nephew, or even a much younger half-brother. Likewise, the Larkin Laws in the other household—that of Elisha Laws in Tennessee—might well have been related to William Laws' family back in North Carolina. Sometimes tracing possibilities means exploring routes to assumed family connection which turn out to be disproven hypotheses in the end. But we never know until we test our theories.

With that, tomorrow we'll learn what can be found about the Larkin Laws in North Carolina. For one thing, we'll explore ways to connect him to William and Elizabeth—not to mention to Catherine, herself. But we'll also see what we can discover about that Larkin's life trajectory, especially when it comes to his own descendants.   

Monday, February 21, 2022

Finding Catherine's Family:
Through the Paper Trail


DNA may present us with options for building out the shadowy branches of our family tree, but those DNA matches may not always send us a clear signal. Even with what we resignedly call "brick wall" ancestors, though, there may be a paper route to a clearer genealogical answer.

For the case I'm currently grappling with, I'm looking at the family of my second great-grandmother. I have seen notes that her full name was Sarah Catherine Laws, but when I trace her life through the usual documents we use for family history, I see her name listed—with only one exception, the census just after her marriage to Thomas Davis—as Catherine, not Sarah Catherine.

I also already know that Catherine has shown up in census records as having been born in either Tennessee or North Carolina. However, don't go joining me in a collective moan over that discrepancy. Let's flip that unclear signal on its head: what it tells me is that she wasn't born in any of the other state options presented during her lifetime.

Speaking of that lifetime, even her date of birth was up for grabs. In the 1860 census, her birth was attributed as a Tennessee occasion in the year 1840. Ten years later, it was reported as a Tennessee happening in 1835, but in 1880, the date was back to 1840—but the state was changed to North Carolina. However, that 1880 census was also the enumeration in which a person's parents' place of birth was also noted; Catherine's parents were said to also have been born in North Carolina.

While this information may seem like a case of mixed messages, it really doesn't complicate our search strategy too much. We simply look for a woman named Catherine Laws who was either born in Tennessee or North Carolina—and who, at the time of the enumeration, was also living in either of those two states. We set the age parameter to include women born between 1835 and 1840, a very simple task to do, given the current capabilities of online searches and the availability of digitized records.

Next, keep in mind we will be the recipients of some genealogical good luck in the next fact necessary to find Catherine in her parents' home. Since Catherine and Thomas married in 1856, we couldn't possibly discover who her parents were through any census gathered later than that—unless there were extenuating circumstances requiring that married woman to return to her parents' home with her children. Since I already know that is not part of Catherine's life story, the only place we can—hopefully—find Catherine at home with mom and dad would be in the 1850 census. That is the only remaining enumeration in which all individuals in a household were listed by name for the census.

Simple. Our search has been narrowed for us: one enumeration, two states, a date range limited to a five-year span for Catherine's birth. What can we find for that?

Brace yourself for the onslaught of listings with a name as common as Catherine. I know I did when I decided to strike out into the wilds of online searching. And, you know what? I found only two candidates for Catherine's possible parents.

One was the household of John and Jane Laws, who lived in Beaver Island township on the eastern side of Stokes County, North Carolina. The Catherine listed in that household was fifteen years of age in the 1850 census, born in North Carolina. On the down side, John—her possible father—listed his own birthplace as Virginia, not North Carolina. Likewise for Jane. But the biggest complicating factor, at least in my own mind, was the fact that the household also included a three year old girl named Sarah. If our Catherine does turn out to have used a full name of Sarah Catherine, it is doubtful—though admittedly possible—that another member of that family would also be given that same first name.

The other candidate for likely family was also residing in the state of North Carolina. This was the household of William and Elizabeth Laws, living in Yancey County. The compelling detail about Yancey County is that it is just over the state line from Unicoi County, Tennessee. Of course, back in 1850, there was no such entity as Unicoi County; it was still part of Tennessee's Washington County, the very county where Catherine married Thomas Davis and was found with her young family for the 1860 census.

William and Elizabeth Laws' 1850 census entry was enticing for a number of reasons. A natural first point was that the Catherine included in this household was likely born in 1838, same year as etched into our Catherine's headstone when she died in 1893. That year, by extension, would make her eighteen years of age upon the occasion of her marriage to Thomas Davis—not that Tennessee marriages never saw wives of younger ages, of course, but it was a common enough age to nearly qualify it as a traditional marrying age.

What is necessary for Catherine's potential family, however, was that she at least have brothers. This was obvious for one reason: among my DNA matches are several distant "cousins" who descend from the Laws surname. While my own patriline certainly doesn't come into play in such a case, for these Laws matches to show up when I perform a search specifically for that surname means that has to be the story for their patriline. No Laws brothers for Catherine in the family listed in that 1850 census, no possibility that that line would lead to my Laws DNA matches.

There is yet another reason this second 1850 census entry looks promising as a candidate for Catherine's lost family. When I look closely at the trees posted by some of my Laws DNA cousins, they contain one particular name for their ancestor which is an unusual given name. That name happens to be included in this same census readout. While I can also find that name in other census records for 1850, this is the only family which I can find in either North Carolina or Tennessee which contains both this man's name and Catherine's own name.

We'll start examining that individual's story more closely this week, and see whether this 1850 household includes collateral lines which lead us to any of those Laws DNA matches.

Sunday, February 20, 2022

Looking for Laws Kin


Looking for missing links in the family tree may mean testing hypotheses. And testing involves the very strong possibility of incorporating mistakes into a pedigree. A process like this might mean two steps forward, then one step—or ten—back. Such a discovery can manifest itself immediately, or only long afterwards.

In the quest to find my second great-grandmother's parents, I'm far from finding a solid answer, but I'm firmly in the midst of a tree-building process. This week, I've had to backtrack and eliminate plenty of guesses, not so much because I added the wrong name into this branch of the family tree—the potential family of Catherine Laws of northeastern Tennessee—but because so many people in that area's Laws families named their children the exact same name. Measure twice, cut once. Or, hopefully, not at all.

While building that potential tree of Laws kin in northeastern Tennessee, I'm managed to add quite a few to my family tree—despite the many I've had to carve out afterwards, due to false leads. This being time for my biweekly progress check, I'm fairly certain that my current Laws project was what made possible the 315 additional entries in my tree over the past two weeks. That tree, incidentally, now claims 27,600 individuals—though don't think they will all make the cut by the time I return for my next biweekly report.

In contrast, while there is always something to attend to on my in-laws' tree, progress was far slower. In the past two weeks, I've only added thirty nine new individuals, leaving that tree standing—mostly unmolested—at 26,142 confirmed relatives. That number will most likely remain static until I finish the next six weeks of research devoted to my mother's ancestry and move on to those Twelve Most Wanted ancestors from my mother-in-law's family.

Tomorrow, I'll outline my thinking behind selection of my main candidate for Catherine Laws' childhood family, both thanks to the guidance of DNA testing and knowledge of the area of northeastern Tennessee where the Laws family—and related lines—settled so long ago.

Saturday, February 19, 2022

An Appetite for Learning


Though my educational palate has long since been set on long-form main courses, occasionally nibbling on some tasty genealogical appetizers is not beyond me. Given that a worldwide family history fest is about to be deliciously plated for all to partake, with no limit to time or space, why not avail one's self of such an educational feast?

The learning opportunity I'm referring to is FamilySearch's RootTech, the annual family history conference which, since the pandemic, has re-invented itself as a 72-hour long continuous digital learning opportunity beginning at 8:00 a.m.—Salt Lake City time, of course—on March 3. All it takes to be a participant in this digital event is to sign up for a free account at and register for the conference (and have access to an online connection).

Several keynote speakers have already been announced, and represent compelling life stories from around the world. Soon, the listing of all sessions will be made available, at which point you can assemble your personal play list to suit your own educational needs. As was done last year, the sessions will remain on the RootsTech website for access throughout the year, so there's no pressure to overindulge by educational overdose.

One fun diversion is the opportunity to find new relatives among fellow RootsTech attendees by joining Relatives at RootsTech—yet another way the conference team is emphasizing their theme, "Choose Connection." What really caught my eye about the team's explanation of their theme was the statement, "Of all the ways to choose connection in this world, listening to another person's story with interest and empathy might be the best way to start."

To catch up on all the RootsTech news which has already been posted, see the FamilySearch blog. Granted, there's a lot to consider—especially seeing all the stories which are about to be shared with this worldwide audience. Though the full schedule has not yet been released, there is bound to be something for everyone in this learning smorgasbord of family history. Read the menu of good things to come, yes, but in the meantime, don't forget to place your own order: in order to participate, you'll need to remember to register for your free seat at the learning table. 

Friday, February 18, 2022

Sifting Through the Match List


I realize there are all sorts of approaches to sifting through those myriad DNA matches we receive in exchange for spitting in a tube mailed to a genetic genealogy company. Believe me, since my case involves a current count of over two thousand of what Ancestry calls "close matches"—fourth cousin or closer—and nearly thirty five thousand matches in total, I'm all for figuring out how to make sense of such a jumble of results.

Still, as we've already explored, simply using the tool Ancestry provides—their Thru-Lines listings—gives me only four puny matches linked specifically to my target ancestor, second great-grandmother Catherine Laws of northeastern Tennessee. Of those four matches, the one with the largest amount of genetic material in common with me amounts to a share of only twelve centiMorgans, hardly a sure lead—though I did determine exactly where she fits in my family tree.

Instead of relying solely on Thru-Lines, I try a different approach, one I've come to prefer, despite the added work to keep track of progress. I start by pulling up my entire match list and searching for those who have, in their affixed family tree, a specific surname in common with me. In this case, I entered the Laws surname in the search box, and pulled up twenty four matches who share at least twenty centiMorgans with me.

I record the names resulting from that family tree search—spreadsheet fans know where to go with this recordkeeping task—and also note the estimated relationship range, amount of centiMorgans in common, and how many segments that shared amount involves. Once I have that material listed, I then click through each Laws match candidate—I just open each one in quick succession by filling in a sequence of tabs across my computer screen so I can move quickly from one match to the next. The main point is to examine each candidate's "Shared Matches" for those lists which yield a cluster of repeated matches' names.

In that way, I spotted a few specific matches who kept showing up in a cluster. In particular, I zeroed in on those who met this criterion as well as being among those matches who shared only one segment with me. That is important because of the risk of finding matches who actually belong to the other interrelated lines from the small Tennessee communities where my ancestors lived. As became obvious during this process of elimination, some "shared matches" really connected with my Davis, Boothe, or Broyles lines, rather than specifically and solely pointing back to that Laws connection I am seeking.

Of the twenty four matches located through this process, three stood out as strong possibilities. They range from the largest match sharing ninety one centiMorgans to one with a single segment containing only twenty eight centiMorgans. I'll use these three as test cases, exploring the documentation they provide in their own trees, as well as building out a hypothetical tree upwards from my second great-grandmother to her parents and siblings.

While I'm in the midst of that (admittedly messy) process, on Monday, I'll explain what's behind my reasoning for focusing on one particular hypothesis for Catherine Laws' parents. I may be right. I may turn out to be wrong. But stuck as I am at this point, there isn't any possibility of forward movement without the willingness to experiment. In some ways, the way forward beyond a brick wall ancestor—at least with the assistance of DNA testing—is not much different than the techniques used by adoptees to find their birth parents.  


Thursday, February 17, 2022

Bring That Background Information
to the Forefront


DNA testing, when applied to genealogy, seems so science-y that we begin to think of it as a turnkey operation: enter facts, press button, out comes the answer.

Not so fast, I've discovered. The results of our exploration may be far more nuanced than we'd hoped. Take my quest to discover the identity of my second great-grandmother's parents. Catherine Laws and her descendants are easily traceable from their home in tiny Erwin, Tennessee, but she becomes a cypher once we try to pass beyond the sparse documentation asserting her marriage to Thomas Davis on November 6, 1856.

Of course, now I can take my research problem to my DNA matches at the four major companies where I've tested, and hope one is close enough to lead me to the answer I'm seeking. But it isn't always as straightforward as one would hope; there may be pitfalls. Gaining a clear understanding of the background information of Catherine's situation can help eliminate some false leads and steer us closer to the right direction.

Today, we'll examine just a few of the pitfalls I want to avoid, before we move on to inspect the best candidates to lead us to our answers.

When we first find Catherine Laws, it is upon the occasion of her marriage. That event took place not in the location of her birth—North Carolina, a fact we don't uncover until the 1880 census—but in Washington County, Tennessee.

Unless a researcher lives in or near the area of their ancestors, it is hard to understand how the location of the county can impact the result of research. In Catherine's case, Washington County at the time of her marriage was far larger than it was when, over two decades later, she showed up in a different county, known as Unicoi County. She may well have been living in the same place all along, with the county line moving around her, since Unicoi was actually carved from Washington County in 1875. In addition, the area which became Unicoi County borders the state line dividing Tennessee from North Carolina. With that, we realize that this woman who grew up in one state and removed to another may have accomplished that transition simply by following a road over a mountain pass.

To complicate our DNA scenario, when I look at Catherine's descendants—my great-grandfather Will Davis' collateral lines—I realize that both he and his older brother married women whose maiden names were Boothe. Granted, that can be a fairly common surname—and I have yet to find where the two women might be related. But here's the catch: these are two women living in a relatively isolated mountain area in a county which, at the time, boasted a population of less than four thousand people. There is a good chance that any descendants of those two lines might be doubly related to each other, both through their Davis line and through their Boothe line.

Fortunately, there are records showing that, for a while, Catherine and Thomas Davis may have moved to neighboring Greene County, Tennessee. But even that may interject double relatives, if the Laws families living in Greene County at the time were actually Catherine's relatives. Here's the reason: some of those Laws people married spouses by the name of Broyles—yet another surname intertwined in my roots. In fact, whether in Greene County or back in Washington and Unicoi Counties, there were plenty of Broyles family connections to complicate DNA results.

With limited populations living in small, isolated communities, the chance becomes all the greater that there may be some sort of pedigree collapse among any possible DNA matches. To help me with my current research goal of determining Catherine's parents, I'd need a DNA match—or more—to clearly demonstrate that we are related only through the Laws line. Granted, that would include an as yet unknown to me maiden name of Catherine's mother, as well. But it is important that it not mix in any connections with the Boothe or Broyles lines.

A straight across DNA match with someone else descended from Catherine's parents—my Laws third great-grandparents, whoever they were—would involve connecting with a fourth cousin. According to Blaine Bettinger's updated Shared cM Project at DNA Painter, matching fourth cousins can share as much as 139 centiMorgans—and, of course, anything less than that amount. Yet I certainly do not come anywhere as close as that highest amount, when examining potential Laws matches. Most of my Laws matches include much smaller amounts—down to numbers far below twenty, which I consider to be beyond a prudent cut-off point.

Even in the smaller amounts, hovering around the 20 cM cut-off point, I watch for one more detail: whether the match and I share multiple segments or just one. At the smaller numbers, spotting just one segment in common gives me more confidence the inherited segment came from only one family line—not splinters from the blended Boothe/Davis or Laws/Broyles scenarios I wish to avoid. In gleaning all the Laws connections I could find via AncestryDNA, that is exactly what I looked for: DNA matches with the Laws surname in their roots who, if a distant relative, only shared one segment with me. Tomorrow, we'll take a look at what I found.



Wednesday, February 16, 2022

D N A : Many Matches, Many Approaches


Some people treat DNA testing as a sure thing, the answer to all our genealogical research problems—and in many ways, that can be true. But when we're approaching a messy stack of DNA matches with a presumption—at least at AncestryDNA—that the subscriber's accompanying documentation is pristine, well, we're bound to be disappointed. Even DNA requires our due diligence to untangle some messy knots.

In the case of my second great-grandmother—so close, and yet so far away—Catherine Laws Davis has presented a research problem in that I can't determine who her parents were, even with the help of DNA testing.

That's not to say I don't have options. I can, of course, look at her suggested matches at Ancestry's Thru-Lines tool. But when I look at her own tile on the lineup of direct ancestors at the Thru-Lines listing, all that is presented to me are two matches, both of whom descend from her other children, collateral lines to my great-grandfather, William Davis. Each of those matches represents tiny genetic connections to me, one at twelve centiMorgans, the other at sixteen. Still, I already have them accounted for in my tree. Connecting DNA matches from collateral lines to my first great-grandfather is a piece of cake, in my opinion.

The trouble is, in order to find any specific Laws matches, I need to step back one more generation, to Catherine Laws' parents. But wait! Those are the exact people I don't yet know the identity of, so how can I take a step like that?

Easy enough, according to Ancestry. They have a handy-dandy way to estimate who those ancestors might be: through the multiple trees posted by Ancestry subscribers onto their website.

And we all know how well-researched each and every one of those trees is.

If we go by Ancestry's guess and look at my DNA matches who descend from my supposed third great-grandparents, my Catherine's own parents, my DNA match count magically doubles from two to four people. Still, of those four matches, the centiMorgan count is so low, it borders on the chance of being Identical by State rather than Identical by Descent. In my case, these four DNA matches share 8, 9, 11, or 12 centiMorgans with me.

If I follow the Thru-Lines suggestion for the next generation removed—in other words, Catherine Laws' suggested paternal grandparents—the count of DNA matches skyrockets to twenty one. And yet, how can I be sure that the Thru-Lines suggested ancestors are correct—especially if they are merely drawn from subscribers' trees? Could these matches be related to me via other familial connections?

There may be a few complicating factors in researching my second great-grandmother, Catherine Laws. Before we begin talking science and genetics, and even before we delve further into the paper trail of her genealogy, let's take a look, tomorrow, at some facts about the setting in which she was born, and in which she got married, raised a family, and spent her later years. Some details about the communities in which she spent those stages of her life may reveal some clues to help us understand some pitfalls inherent in this search. After that, we can examine an alternate approach to depending on the Thru-Lines readout.

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Not to Complicate Things, But . . .


Trying to trace an ancestor through times and locations in which record-keeping was not, ah, shall we say a precise science can be frustrating. Just as I closed my post yesterday regarding just what, exactly, my second great-grandmother's given name might have been—I had settled on Catherine, plain and simple—what should I find but yet another indicator that maybe, just maybe, that wasn't exactly the name she went by.

Oh, groan.

I happened to recall I had purchased a book from the series, "Images of America," which featured a scrapbook-style approach to recounting the history of the town of Erwin, Tennessee—home of my Davis roots—and thought I'd flip through the pages to see if any of my kin might have been included. They were. In fact, there were two photographs which featured the very woman in question, and each was labeled clearly, "Cassa Laws Davis."

Just like she figured in the 1860 census—at least, if my presumption is right—the wife of Thomas Davis was labeled in this book not as Catherine but Cassa. Yet, nowhere else did I find her under that name. Unless, of course, there were two men by the name of Thomas Davis in the vicinity, I think we can safely presume there would be one wife of Thomas Davis for us to concern ourselves. Granted, Davis is a common surname, but even in 1880, the first census following the formation of Unicoi County, the population for the entire county was only 3,645, making it hopefully less likely that there would be duplicate Thomas Davises of the same age residing there.

Finding discrepancies in records regarding the target of our search can be disconcerting. After all, my goal for this month is to discover the identity of Catherine's parents. But that can't easily be done without knowing her own specific identity. Is she really Catherine? Or Cassa? Whatever became of the report that her first name was actually Sarah, with Catherine as a middle name? Each variation added to the mix means a search for yet another identity.

To complicate matters, we don't have specifics on something as simple as the circumstances of her birth. The 1860 census shows "Cassa" as born in Tennessee in 1840. Ten years later, her year of birth in the state had been moved back to 1835. But by 1880, her year of birth had been restored to 1840, yet the location had jumped the border to North Carolina—with the added information that both her parents had been born in that other state, as well.

It is fairly clear, by looking at the photograph of her headstone and that of her husband, that we are looking at two sides of one monument. So, at least by the point of their death, family seemed to agree on a name of Catherine for their mom, and Thomas Davis for their dad. Her headstone provides a date of 1838 for her birth, nearly averaging out the two census estimates—perhaps more as a compromise than an actual fact.

To be clear, while it seems a simple process of looking in that small county for records of any other families by the surname Laws, I get the distinct impression this is not going to be such a straightforward project. Even the record of their marriage in 1856—back then, in what was still part of Washington County, Tennessee—includes such a scrawl of her name as to make the surname look like "Laus." Even worse was the fact that Thomas—if indeed that was him—was listed only by initials, and not the two we'd assume from subsequent records (T. D.), but with an added third initial. Same person? Hard to tell.

Though I'd like to say "fortunately" in preface to my comment that I have several DNA matches to help untangle this research problem, even that is a messy situation. If I use "Thru-Lines" at to sort out the matches, that program relies on subscribers' own submitted trees—mistakes and all. And who's to say mine doesn't include any? After all, I'm already stumped, and this is only my second great-grandmother.

Granted, sometimes our research is a process of trial and error. We test the possibilities and evaluate whether they can be supported by evidence. Some of those tests will lead to a decision to abandon that hypothesis. Hopefully, one will stand out as amply supported by the documentation it leads us to find. But unless we give the process a try, we'll never know. Tomorrow, we'll begin looking at the DNA possibilities and what they show us.


Above: 1856 marriage return in Washington County, Tennessee—predecessor to Unicoi County—is it for our Davis and Laws? Or do those extra initials and sloppy handwriting point to another couple? Image courtesy

Monday, February 14, 2022

Letting D N A Be my Guide


Do you ever find yourself getting envious of those researchers who brag about working on their seventh or eighth great-grandparents? Nah, not me; I just figure they've got easier ancestors to research, or short generations, or paperwork which never got lost in the bureaucratic shuffle.

Me? This month I'm facing the music on one of the branches of my maternal line which has kept me stalled at a second great-grandparent. Yes, a mere second great-grandmother. The odd thing is that, thanks to her genetic legacy, I have several DNA matches all claiming kin with folks sporting her maiden name: Laws. And none of them match up to what I know about my second great-grandmother. Some of these DNA matches have trees which don't even seem to line up with each other.

 On the theory that they can't all be wrong, I'm game to test the waters this month. Back before the beginning of this year, I made Sarah Catherine Laws the second of my Twelve Most Wanted for 2022. The trouble is, I don't really know very much about this woman. In fact, I'm not really sure that's her full name, despite family tradition that she was Sarah Catherine, and not just Catherine, as so many documents represent her.

Take the census records for instance. In the 1860 census, newlyweds Thomas and "Cassa" Davis are included in Washington County, Tennessee, along with their newborn son James. Though "Cassa" is usually short for Cassandra—and I do have another ancestor from that region claiming that given name—I just chalked that up to enumerator error. After all, she was listed as Catharine in the 1870 census, and exactly the same for the 1880 census. Though her 1893 headstone in Erwin, Tennessee, proclaimed her as Catherine Davis, two of her four children's death certificates—the only ones that I could find—contradicted each other: eldest son James' certificate mentioned his mother as Catherine Laws, while daughter Mary McNabb's North Carolina record had her as Sarah Laws. Even the carefully-researched Tilson Genealogy lists her simply as Catherine Laws. No Sarah.

That may turn out to be helpful intel, as we'll see when we review what can be found on Sarah, er, Catherine herself. Depending on which family tree we examine for the various Laws families who may be candidates for my second great-grandmother's extended family, having her name listed as both Sarah and Catherine may run us into trouble. Whether by DNA test or paper trail, we'll begin our search tomorrow to see if we can sort out this name conflict.

Sunday, February 13, 2022

Revisiting Those "Notes to Self"


The pursuit of family history, despite now being so heavily digitized, can still leave an enormous paper trail in its wake. Let's just say my second-most active pursuit is cleaning up the scraps of paper upon which I jot down reminders of research revelations as they occur to me.

When those notes have passed their prime, it's into the trash they go. Except...I can't help re-reading what I'm about to rid myself of—and then decide the note really needs just a little bit more work.

Take the scratch paper upon which I had noted several details about an upcoming meeting—a to-do list which, now two years later, is well-qualified to have become a "done" list. It would easily have landed in the recycle bin, except what should catch my eye as it wafted its way downward but a different note added in the margin. In a different color ink, it was a clear spot of paper upon which to hurriedly jot—before I forgot, no doubt—yet one more thing that I absolutely could not neglect to follow up on.

The terse note said only 

Drucilla—died March 3, 1866
Mary A. McLeran's sister

This was the family line descended from the Florida pioneer, ferryman Ruben Charles, father of that Mary-of-the-Red-Scarf legend who, at least as far as I could tell, did not die the tragic death in her youth romanticized in local lore. Here was a note reminding me that I had found mention of her—married, no less—in some of the court proceedings surrounding her husband's sudden death.

Mary's husband, as I recalled once I returned to look this up, was a northern Florida man by the name of William T. McLeran. And William's parents were a North Carolina couple of the early 1800s by the name of Nevin and Rebecca.

Oh. And Rebecca's maiden name was Tison.

That fact had never been lost on me. Let's just say I sort of forgot that little detail this year until I ran across that bit of torn paper now flitting from my fingertips into the trash can. Now, after having spent a month searching high and low for any signs of another Tison's origins in North Carolina—and watching some of his progeny leap the border to settle in territorial Florida—can anyone walk away from this other research temptation and not wonder whether there is yet another, though unseen, connection to ferret out from all this early American era's scant personal records?

Let's just say I'm not exactly walking away from it. I'll just reconstitute that shredded note and fold it in with the file containing my to-list for the next time we ponder those mystery Tisons from North Carolina. The books must remain closed on that case for now. We've got another task to tackle for our February research challenge. 

Saturday, February 12, 2022

Where to Look Next


So, you've worked on garnering all the facts about your ancestor from governmental records—wills, marriage records, maybe even census enumerations—and you still come up short. Are there any other ways to fill in the blanks on your ancestor's story?

That's where I'm stuck with my research goal to discover the roots of my fourth great-grandfather, Job Tison of Glynn County, Georgia. Supposedly, he settled there from a previous home in Pitt County, according to what other researchers assert—but I'm not uncovering a satisfactory paper trail leading back to that North Carolina location. Since my research schedule allots one month for each project—and then I must move on to the next of my Twelve Most Wanted ancestors for the year—I'll need to set aside my goal of determining Job Tison's parents and origin for another year.

Though I set him aside, that doesn't mean I can walk away without gathering notes from my unfinished trail of discoveries. I've found some possible clues which will need some follow up, and if I don't write down those details for future reference, you know I'll forget where the trail has led me, next time I journey down this same research path. That means the last step I take, before wrapping up this belated January research project, is to note possible directions for my first steps, next time Job Tison is on my research agenda. As they say in the restaurant business, at the end of my work day, I need to "close to open."

There were indeed some tempting resources to explore this past month. In trying to learn more about the many Tisons who did live in Pitt County, I found Tison land grant records from the North Carolina Land Grants website. If my Job Tison did turn out to originate in Pitt County, he had plenty of relatives in the neighborhood.

As I do for many of my research puzzles, I look at Internet Archive for any digitized copies of local history books. In this case, finding mention of a young Job "Tyson" in Sketches of Pitt County makes me wonder whether that narrative provides the explanation for my Job's sudden break for land farther south in Georgia at about the same time. Of course, as has already been suggested, I also perused pertinent entries via Google Books, and encountered a footnote regarding two Tisons in Beaufort, South Carolina. Though it involved a much later era, it reminds me of a possible intermediate settling point for my Job as well, which also piqued my curiosity—again, for ongoing research possibilities.

Internet Archive is one target-rich research opportunity, if one can adequately sift through the myriad digitized resources available there, but not everything online is as easily found. One recently-updated resource is the Periodical Source Index—PERSI for short—which has now been re-located to its new home at the Allen County Public Library. Cari Taplin has recently posted a three-part series, explaining what to expect at PERSI's new host location, how to put PERSI through its search paces at its new host home and, finally, how to access the articles you've found through the PERSI system.

On my trial run of the relocated PERSI, I discovered—no surprise here—some articles on the Tisons published in the Pitt County Genealogical Quarterly. How to find them? Google revealed that several of the issues are available through DigitalNC. Sure enough, when I followed the links, I found there are at least twenty two volumes already digitized and accessible. I'd call that an ample start.

That's not to say I won't also consult ArchiveGrid in hopes that Job Tison, his forebears or descendants might have bequeathed their "papers" to a participating repository—once again, a multi-step process to be learned and exercised, but worth the effort when something off the beaten research path is located. And I'll continue my search through the various historic newspaper collections. Maybe even a foray into the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections could prove helpful. And I won't forsake reviewing the basics, such as the FamilySearch wiki for places like North Carolina's Pitt County or the later Tison home in Glynn County, Georgia.

The real task is to locate material which provides not necessarily the specifics on Job Tison or his family—ancestors or descendants—but on the communities in which they lived. Finding the breadth of the narrative through writings of his own time period may open a researcher's eyes to the way of life experienced by our ancestors.

While Job Tison may only have been a handwritten entry with trailing tick marks in an 1820 census record, we may be able to reveal more about the likely components of his life by locating and absorbing the details in published material on the local history of places he once called home. Though we'll need to set aside our Tison research task for this year, with a hefty future to-do list tucked in his file, I can hit the ground running, next time his name comes up for a research project. There's always more to learn about our ancestors—and always more resources which will come available in the future—making a policy of revisiting our research targets periodically a smart move.


Friday, February 11, 2022

Job's Daughters


After seeing what little could be found on an ancestor from governmental documents of the early 1800s, the idea was to garner resources from non-governmental written material of the era—archived collections of journals or diaries, say, or other manuscript collections mentioning the Tison family of my fourth great-grandfather. Or at least newspapers. Surely some chatty columnist of a subsequent century would interview the aging grandchildren of Job and Sidnah Tison and press for stories of the "good ol' days" in Glynn County, Georgia. 

So much for plans. After wrapping up a survey, nearly empty-handed, of any newspaper mentions of their parents' legacy by the sons of Job Tison, I assumed there would be even less material to examine through the effort of searching for Job's daughters. How wrong I was.

My strategy was to avoid conducting a search from oldest to youngest. My reasoning? We already knew the oldest daughter, Naomi, predeceased her father. Though she was not named specifically, her place in the Tison family had been inferred by Job's 1824 will. With women being nearly invisible during that era, any hopes of finding Naomi's name in even an obituary was unlikely.

The next daughter, Sidney, was my third great-grandmother. Just seventeen at the point of her father's death, seven years afterward, Sidney married George McClellan, a son of her father's associate—and witness to his will, Charles McClellan—and was whisked away to a new home in territorial Florida. Since I've already researched her extensively, I passed on researching any mention of her name again, as I doubted I'd find anything new regarding her remembrances of her parents back in Georgia.

Sidney's younger sister Melinda was married barely a month after Job's passing—his minister friend Charles McClellan conducting the ceremony—to John Charles Richard. Less than ten years later, Melinda and her family had followed her brother's lead and moved to Alachua County in Florida. Even though her name can be found on sales of land in Alachua and nearby counties, I tend to doubt her name would surface in a search of Florida newspapers during those early years of statehood.

Likewise for the next sister, Susan Caroline, who was barely a teenager when her father passed. Hers was a mournful story, from what few mentions I can find in vital records. Widowed with a young son by the time she was nineteen, she remarried in only a couple years. By 1864, she, herself was gone.

It didn't really take as much thought as what appeared to go into those brief paragraphs above to choose my course of research action; I instinctually knew there would be more likelihood that the youngest sister's name would be found in public mentions than her older sisters. Thus, the hunt was on to discover any published mentions of Job's daughter Theresa Elizabeth Tison.

And what a cache I found—some of it even true, I'll wager.

At three years of age, Theresa lost her father, so Job would likely be even less than a fleeting memory. Sometimes, though, it is the ones who most keenly feel the lack of family connection who seem most drawn to learn more. Whatever the case, there were ample online resources for tracing Theresa's family story.

Apparently, a man ten years her senior had, in earlier times, been associated with Job Tison in the mercantile business. The man's name was Sylvester Mumford. Born in New York, this northerner had somehow found himself drawn to the southern coastal reaches of Georgia, where he opened up shop near Job's wayside inn—and, as reports had it, fared quite successfully.

Theresa and Sylvester Mumford's 1841 marriage produced two daughters, whom they named Oceana and Goertner. The family lived quite comfortably in a home built for them which was considered a jewel of the area. Pictures of the residence can still be found online, despite the fact that the home, by then long abandoned, had been badly damaged by fire in 2005.

Along with the photos can be found stories of the family who once had lived there. It was there that I gleaned a few references to Theresa's father Job Tison. More than that, though, was the continuation of the family's saga with their beautiful, nearly legendary daughter Goertner who, as the widow of Jay Curtis Parkhurst, lived to be nearly one hundred years of age.

Of course, along with the family stories and remembrances of the property came some reports of a more legendary sort—including conjecture about the Mumford fortune in relation to the missing "Confederate gold." Whether the stories about Goertner's father Sylvester Mumford were true, of course I cannot tell, but one thing is sure: at her passing, she bequeathed a significant sum for the educational support of Georgia's orphans, especially young women. Her legacy can be found even today on the website of one Georgia college, detailing the origin of the student residence known as Parkhurst Hall. And when the childless widow Goertner Mumford Parkhurst's will was presented in court in Washington, D. C., four southern states' newspapers reported on her legacy: besides recipients Georgia and South Carolina (location of one beneficiary orphanage), the story was carried in North Carolina and Alabama.

While the details of Job Tison's prominent granddaughter do not provide as much information as we'd hoped to see on the man himself, at least his shadow can be discerned in these remembrances of those subsequent generations. With that, we'll bid adieu to the tantalizing possibilities of the Mumford legacy, and the research goal of tracing Job Tison's origin for this year. But before we close the books on this family story, tomorrow we need to formulate a plausible research plan for when we pick up the quest in the future.  

Thursday, February 10, 2022

Unpleasant Transformations


It was the third son of Job Tison whose biographical sketch, published in the Brunswick Advertiser on February 19, 1879, led fellow researcher Kathy to share the link and comment that looking "far downstream" sometimes led to helpful information about our ancestors, reported by their own descendants. With that—and especially considering John Mason Tison was a Georgia state senator—I had hoped to find a substantial stash of information on his roots.

Apparently, the political activities of southern gentlemen of the 1850s were not quite as widely examined in news reports as that of our current representatives. Surprisingly, even John Mason Tison's passing in 1882 merited barely two lines of newsprint, under the stark heading, Deaths:

TISON—Died, at Bethel, Glynn county, Ga., November 1st, 1882, John M. Tison, in his 66th year.

Hardly the chatty biographical sketch we were hoping for. And don't look for the tone to improve as we move backward in time.

Though only a child of six when his father Job Tison died, as an adult, John apparently rose to prominence in the county of his birth. I found indications of his success in animal husbandry, in addition to his work as an attorney and, later, in civic duties. A Brunswick columnist explained, in a brief insertion in the May 24, 1882, Savannah paper, The Morning News,

Court is held in a one story frame building with no conveniences whatever, and is in anything but a cleanly condition.... It serves the purposes of the Superior Court, Ordinary and Justices, and is no more creditable to this thriving city than is the court house to Savannah. I learn that the county was unable to build a court house, and this structure was erected by Mr. Jno. M. Tison, a wealthy and prominent citizen and a near relative of the late Wm. H. Tison, of Savannah....

Still, of the reports of the man found in his local newspaper, much of the news has a melancholy tone to it—even those items cast as humorous. Back in Brunswick, the November 28, 1877, Advertiser noted, in straightforward somber tones,

Monday's telegrams brought little else but sad news...a dispatch was received from Savannah, announcing the death of Mr. Wm. Tison, of the firm of Tison & Gordon, and brother of our esteemed fellow citizen, Hon. John M. Tison. Troubles come not single handed—only a few days ago Mr. Tison followed his daughter and her husband, Mrs. and Mr. P. A. Hazlehurst, to their last resting place, and now must part with his only brother.

But the Savannah Morning News on May 25, 1882, tried a light approach to what surely turned out to be a serious matter.

Yesterday afternoon Mr. W. F. Penniman, agent of the Savannah and Florida steamers, Messrs. John M. Tison and S. C. Littlefield whilst standing on Bay street engaged in conversation, were suddenly, aye, in the twinkling of an eye, transformed from Caucaussians [sic] into Ethiopians, and the process was decidedly unpleasant. They were standing near a building, the roof of which was being repaired. A workman had a mammoth bucket of melted coal tar in use, when accidentally he disturbed its equipoise, and over the eaves it went, about twenty gallons of the melted tar falling in a shower, and completely deluging the three gentlemen named. Fortunately the bucket did not strike either of them, and they escaped injury, but their plight was fearful. However, there is a cheerful side to the picture—a clothing merchant shortly after the accident sold three suits of clothes.

I'm not sure that was a sufficiently cheerful antidote to the misfortune, nor can I believe the victims "escaped injury." Not three months afterwards, the Brunswick columnist for Savannah's The Morning News reported on August 16 that

Hon. J. M. Tison, one of the oldest citizens of this county, is at present lying very low at Hot Springs, Ark. Mr. J. M. Tison, Jr., of this city, was summoned to his bedside some time ago, and at last accounts the hope of recovery was very small.

From that point until the announcement of his death, silence as far as news reports went. Then, after John Mason Tison's passing, an eruption of legal notices of an estate sale, "before the Court House door," of the thousand head of cattle and three hundred sheep belonging to the estate of John Mason Tison. Indeed, according to a transcription of his will, John's instruction—"I wish my stock of cattle sold as soon as practicable"—was clearly followed.

It was, sadly, in that final document of John Tison where, in addition to his last wishes, the father commented about his namesake son, the one who traveled to Arkansas to be with his father in those last days, "I regret to say that I do not feel that he has treated me during my illness as a dutiful son should." Who knows how to read between such lines, in a document as permanent as a last testament, to determine what unfolded between father and son which led to his choosing those parting words.

Since seeking effusive reminiscence about the legacy of their parents did not turn out to produce the hoped-for family history cache from Job Tison's sons, I doubt we'll see any more chatty results from the Tison daughters, but we'll take one last look tomorrow, before wrapping up with a research to-do list for the next time I visit the gaps in this family line.    


Wednesday, February 9, 2022

Learning About William—
and a Little Latin


In looking for any published reminiscences by the children of Georgia pioneer Job Tison, I realized the more likely choice for a productive search might be to first follow his sons. Why? Job's death in 1824 signaled a time when women were nigh invisible when it came to published material. Thus, after examining the possibilities yesterday linked to Job's oldest son Aaron, we'll bypass his daughters Sidnah, Melinda, and Susan, to arrive at the next oldest son, William.

As the Tison family expanded over the next two generations, the name William seemed to become a popular choice, so when examining newspaper entries for William Tison, I needed to be careful to select the right initial: H. While I have no idea yet what the "H" signifies, that is the letter affixed to the name of Job Tison's second son.

I had stumbled upon some remarks, in online searches, which seemed to indicate that William Tison had, at one point, served in the Georgia General Assembly, so I was keen to explore what could be found on the man. Not much surfaced, other than the usual genealogical resources such as census and marriage records—until it came to the months following the year of his death.

Before jumping to that point, though, let's get a brief overview of what occurred during William H. Tison's lifespan. First, we must realize that when mentioned in his father's will, William was generally clustered by his father with three siblings, "my four youngest children." At the time of his father's passing, William was about eleven years of age.

Only from his grand-daughter Frances' D.A.R. membership was I able to learn that William had been married twice. On that record, William's first wife was listed as Mary Ellis Hardee, who died in 1847, possibly following the birth of a son.

Between the date of William's wife's death and his second marriage, it is hard to trace William's location. One possible entry in the 1850 census is for a traveling merchant, enumerated in the household of one Silas Niblack in Columbia County, Florida. Despite no mention of his children, this is not as far-fetched a possibility as it may seem, keeping in mind that the recently-formed Columbia County was carved from the northern portion of Alachua County, the same location where William's older brother Aaron had settled, twenty years prior.

By 1860, William was back in his native Georgia, where the census showed him living in Savannah with his second wife, the former Mary Scotia Fenton, plus fourteen year old Fannie and twelve year old Mitchell, William's two children from his earlier marriage. An unexpected bonus from this record was the enumerator's overzealous listing of not only each person's state of birth, but detailing the specific location. From this, we glean the fact that Fannie was actually born in Hamilton County, Florida, giving credence to the discovery of William's possible location in Columbia County, adjacent and to the southwest of Hamilton County, in the previous census.

It is likely that William stayed in Savannah for the remainder of his life. He was buried alongside his second wife only a year after her death in 1876. Discovering the location of their final resting place—a beautiful landmark cemetery known as Bonaventure Cemetery—I realized my research trails had led me to pass this way before in chasing Tison descendants, which I explained nearly two years ago in a four part series exploring the Tison connection to the family behind Savannah's Mercer House.

While not much could be found—at least not yet—about William H. Tison during his lifetime, there were several mentions of his name in Savannah subsequent to his passing. One, buried in the legal notices in The Morning News on April 23, 1888, announcing, "Whereas, Brantley A. Denmark has applied to Court of Ordinary for Letters of Administration d. b. n. on the estate of William H. Tison, deceased" got me scurrying to discover what "d. b. n." might mean.

Thankfully, a second insertion in the May 10, 1888, edition gave me more of a handle on resolving the mystery: "Brantley A. Denmark qualified as administrator de bonis non of the estate of William H. Tison."

Quick, racing from search engine Google to the genealogist's legal friend, blogger Judy Russell's Legal Genealogist, I ran for help—and help I received, from a post she wrote back in August 31, 2012, spelling out not only the meaning of "de bonis non," but of all the various terms we can encounter while researching our ancestors' administrators or executors. The straightforward explanation: "If the administrator dies and part of the estate still needs to be administered," that is the term used to designate the court-appointed replacement.

Of course, that brings up questions. Like, what happened to the original administrator? And, why hadn't William appointed an executor? Did he not have a will before his death at age sixty five?

Those, however, are questions for another research project. Our goal here, in trying to wrap up January's family history quest, was to see whether any of Job Tison's children might have reminisced about the good ol' days when their father was one of the early settlers in Glynn County, Georgia. Apparently, Job's son William was not only tight lipped about the history of his forebears, but about his own life, as well.

Above: Insertion in the legal notices in The Morning News, Savannah, Georgia, on April 23, 1888; image courtesy U.S. Library of Congress Chronicling America project.        

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...